December 11, 2019
Howard and Jeremy (9 a.m.)
Jeremy White: Ralph, good morning. It’s Jeremy and Sal Capaccio in for Howard. How are you this morning?
Ralph Krueger: Good morning, good morning. I’m very good. I like snow, so it’s a beautiful day in Buffalo.
JW: Do you have anywhere to go today? I mean, hopefully you’re not driving too far. It can get rough out there.
RK: No, no I live in the core of the city so I have a similar drive no matter rain or shine, snow or sleet, so it’s fine. My movements are easy. We’re here at rink early this morning, the coaches, and we’re back at it.
JW: So what’s on the docket on things you have to work on? I mean, last night’s game was, I think, a fairly strong performance from your group. Fairly happy overall?
RK: Yeah, we’re keeping on the plan, which is to look for growth again today. Keep out picture small. Get ready for Nashville. But more than anything, we need to take with what we did yesterday and how we closed out that game after the 3-2 goal. We had our best 15 minutes of hockey this season, finishing a game and controlling the scoreboard and understanding what it takes to bring those kind of games home against the very heavy, hard-playing St. Louis. I was proud of our finish and so a lot more to confirm yesterday than to learn from, so that’s always nice.
JW: Do you have individual plays? You’re talking about your best 15 minutes. Will you take the video, go over it with the players? What kind of, I guess, drills and or video sessions, or whatever you might do with the players, will you use to highlight exactly what about those 15 minutes you liked so much?
RK: So what happens on a practice day like today is, first of all, we need to know what’s coming up, which is — again, we continue on a torrid pace here with two games in the next three days coming up, so we won’t practice that long. It’ll be short and high quality, low quantity and then off the ice we generally will take some clips from the game yesterday that we liked and also some that we didn’t. There’s always things we can improve on, and work again in a compact form. The guys are still recovering a little bit from our Western Canada trip, so we take it easy on the information, but maybe a 10-minute meeting about the things we liked and about the things we can work on and then we’ll break off and my supporting coaches will do some individual work with players and that’s kind of how our day looks today. We just go right back at it and try to get better for the game against Nashville tomorrow.
JW: You managed to do something that it seems like doesn’t happen often, which is win the first game back from a Western trip. That’s always supposed to be a kiss-of-death kind of game. It’s always difficult for a team that comes back from the West to win their first home game. Did you do anything different about preparation? We’ve talked load management before. Is there anything that you’ve found to be a bit of a trick in coming back from the Western Conference?
RK: Well we almost did nothing, which was probably the trick. We didn’t even see the players; we left them alone on the day we came back at five in the morning there on Sunday night to Monday morning. And then yesterday, we did about a 12- or 13-minute skate in the morning to activate a little bit the hands and bodies. We kept it light as far as video and then brought them in, reeled them in in the evening. But it was actually leaving them alone, making sure they got a lot of sleep and recovery time and that seemed to work. You just need to feel what the group is capable of taking on and I think the momentum out of the Edmonton game, which was really an excellent performance, helped us a lot to get back here in the East and to perform like we did last night.
JW: Linus Ullmark has been just tremendous for you guys of late and last night was not out of the ordinary for him.
RK: No, Linus is really taking a step here this season. Mike Bales, our goalie coach, is doing an excellent job with him psychologically and physically. He worked hard this summer to become more athletic and we can see it in his game, but more than anything it’s his mind and how he’s able to hold a more consistent, aggressive style right through the games and it’s improving. He’s a big part of what’s going on here since — I would say about 11 games now, we’re about 11 games into a stretch where we’ve been pretty consistent with our game. We had that lull of about 10, 11 games after our hot start where we were wandering in and out of our game, but we’re quite pleased with the consistency of performance here. We’re still going to have our off moments, and we’re still going to have times where we need to improve on, but more than anything, Linus is kind of developing like the group in general into a more consistent pattern, which we like and gives us a chance to win every night.
JW: You’re probably going to need both goaltenders down the stretch if you’re going to stay in a playoff race, right now in second in the division. Is your goalie schedule or your percentage of starts per guy, do you have an idea going in? Or is it very much fluid week-to-week? Is it kind of a feeling out process for you being that it’s your first year with both of these guys?
RK: Well no [Carter Hutton] has had some tough breaks of late and he’s such a strong character and he’s an excellent leader in the room and a good voice even as he’s trying to get his confidence and momentum back. We will definitely continue to go game-by-game, whether it’s the forwards, whether it’s the D, you can see we’re making scratches once in a while where we are truly trying to do what’s best for the group for the next game and not thinking much beyond that. So there’s no real long-term plan here, guys; we’re just going to continue to try to put the group together that we think will give us the best chance to stay in the race, and that’s what we need to do against Nashville again tomorrow.
JW: With regard to your defense when doing that, Ralph, you’ve got a rotation, whether it’s Colin Miller in the box one night or Marco Scandella in the box one night. When you’re picking the six that are going to play — six or seven in some cases that are going to dress — how do you go about that? Are you looking at numbers? Are you looking at pairings? Whether or not a pair is meshing? If a pair is meshing, is a guy more likely to stay in and not be bounced out by the rotation? I’m wondering exactly how you’re arriving at each decision that these six are the best on the given night.
RK: Well the complication there has really been that the group has performed it exactly as that: as a group. Nobody has fallen off the map completely. It’s been extremely difficult because we feel there’s a lot of parity there on the D right now and almost any combination will give us a chance. We’re trying to make sure we keep the spirits in the right place, and the rotations have been taken well by the D, whether we play seven — which is never a lot of fun for defensemen in the National Hockey League — or we sit somebody out, they’re all in with the guys. They work out that much harder in the practices if they don’t have a game. Thus far, what we do this morning, we get up early, we come in, our coach’s talk begins with the roster, begins with how we want to come together for Nashville, what group we’re going to pick. There is some stomach behind all of that, some gut decisions that are made. But again, we’re happy with the group, we’re happy with the internal competition, it pushes everybody to look for their A-game every day. And like most things we’re doing here, we really make those decisions on the day.
Sal Capaccio: I know you’re really big into communication and relationships, so how do you approach that with the guys? Because no one wants to sit, obviously. How do you go about a daily conversation with the guys and how all that’s going to play out?
RK: Well Donnie Granato with the forwards and Steve Smith with the D help me in that process so we are always communicating openly with the players before we announce the roster and the lineup and we let the player know that he’s out, if he is, and give him the opportunity to discuss with us the situation; possibly the whys and what could he work on if he has a practice or he’s watching a game instead of playing it. I want to say that the assistant coaches play a huge role there because my day after practice, I run into the media, there’s lots of other group things that I take care of and, individually, I’ve got unbelievable support here in my coaching staff and they communicate very openly. We just lay all the cards on the table. We’re very honest with the guys, we let them know the truth, and we can only hope that they take it the right way — and they have so far — and that they grow from that and they push themselves to be better and make it more difficult for us to take them out next time.
JW: Ralph, how about for Casey Mittelstadt? Had a game up in the press box to kind of look things over. He’s kind of had his struggles this year. You’re talking about you being honest with the guys, what’s your message to Casey and his development at this point?
RK: Well we have to understand when players are 20 or under how much they are learning every single day and how far away they still are from their potential. Casey’s potential is so exciting. His skill and ability as it develops here is a lot of fun to work with. Sometimes taking a breath and sitting out and watching from afar and having a lesser role can be what that player needs for a few days or could be a few games or only one game. It’s all an attitude thing: How do you take that as a player? Do you point fingers all over the place and blame other people or do you look inside and try to get better yourself and learn from it? Casey is looking at what he needs to work on, what he needs to get better on. Donnie Granato is spending a lot of time with him as he grows here day to day. He’s come a long way since the beginning of training camp to understand what it takes to be a centerman in the National Hockey League. He’s spending some time on the wing here and there. There’s a lot coming at you here at a very quick speed. The level of play in the National Hockey League is going up every week right now as everybody is finding their rhythm, finding their games; the challenge is harder and more difficult and so it is for Casey. I just love his attitude. I love his willingness to work and to understand what it’s going to take. Again, it’s just part of the process here. We’ve got a good group of guys and different people will be sitting out on different nights and that’s just a sign of a team evolving in the right direction.
JW: One last (question) before we let you go. I think one good sign about players can grow and become an even better version of what they were is probably Jack Eichel, who continues to club to new heights. This has been a great year for him. He’s got 20 goals already, on pace for over 100 points, which would be a career high for him by quite a bit. I would say Jack Eichel’s a shining example of still getting more out of a player even though he’s been in the league a couple of years.
RK: Jack has 100 percent bought into everything we’re doing here and he’s an example, every shift he works has as anybody. He plays as strongly within the framework that we want to play in here and he’s profiting from it as an individual player, which is interesting him much less than the team success. Off ice, on ice, just an outstanding leader and [I’m] so excited that he’s having personal success, but again, nobody’s really speaking about that. He certainly isn’t. It’s all about the team here. It’s all about us learning how to compete here and to continue to stay in the mix, to stay in the race and to be in the right position in the new year. So that’s the great thing about Jack. It’s a lot of fun working with him. He’s trying to get better still every day, which has got to excite us all. And you can see the minutes he’s playing and the work ethic that he has; it’s definitely paying off for him. But nobody’s giving him this. He’s earning everything. He’s working for everything, and his skill along with that work ethic is an exciting thing to be a part of.
JW: Alright Ralph, best of luck tomorrow against Nashville.
SC: It’s Aud Night.
JW: It’s Aud Night.
SC: I know your playing career and your coaching career wouldn’t have really taken you to the Aud, but do you remember anything about the Aud?
RK: Well I’ll tell you right now that I do not remember anything about the Aud, but I can only tell you that one of my good friends from Europe, Uwe Krupp is here from the ’80s and he’s hanging out with us here for a few days. He coaches over in Prague right now and he’s been a coaching colleague in Europe for decades. He’s one of the biggest fans Buffalo has, I have to tell you. He was one of my first calls when I was offered the job here. It’s good to have Uwe around and all the ’80s guys at the game tomorrow. It will be a lot of fun.